One is a veteran journalist who has watched the India-China engagement for six decades, and disagrees strongly with the official Indian narrative. The other was India’s Ambassador to China until 2016, and has been one of New Delhi’s key negotiators with Beijing. The Indian Express put the same set of questions to both.
Neville Maxwell: The retired Australian-British journalist covered the 1962 war for The Times. In March 2014, he leaked a part of the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report, a classified 1963 Defence Ministry report examining India’s military performance in the war. Maxwell is the author of India’s China War, which is seen as containing inferences based on Chinese statements and perceptions. Historian Srinath Raghavan said the book was a “seminal revisionist account” which “curiously interpreted Delhi’s actions almost as Beijing would have viewed it”.
Ashok Kantha: The former career diplomat retired as India’s Ambassador to China in January 2016. Besides three assignments in China, he served as Joint Secretary (East Asia) and Director (China) at the Ministry of External Affairs for periods of four years each, during which he was closely involved in the formulation and implementation of India’s foreign policy with respect to China. He is currently Director of the Delhi-based Institute of Chinese Studies, and a Distinguished Fellow at Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi.
What lies at the root of the current standoff between India and China in Doklam? Is it driven by history?
With the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China facing each other over thousands of kilometres of unsettled and profoundly disputed borders, minor local disagreements can readily flare up into bellicose state confrontations; and since the memory of the 1962 border war, with China’s dramatic victory and India’s utter and humiliating defeat, is ever fresh in the minds of all concerned, on both sides, fear that what should remain relatively petty will spark another war is only rational.
The root of the Doklam standoff is certainly historical. It lies in the different and contradictory approaches to the problem of border settlement taken by the two governments, which surfaced and was made explicit at the Bandung Conference in 1955, attended by the two protagonists in formative Sino-Indian relations, Jawaharlal Nehru and Zhou Enlai. Consider first Zhou’s policy declaration on the issue, at Bandung:
With some [of our neighbouring] countries we have not yet finally fixed our border line and we are ready to do so. But before [such negotiations can be held] we are willing to maintain the present situation by acknowledging that those parts of our border are parts which are undetermined. We will restrain our government and people from crossing even one step across our border, [and] if such things do happen we [would] admit our mistake. As to the determination of common borders which we will be undertaking with our neighbouring countries, we shall use only peaceful means and we shall not permit any other kind of method. In no case shall we change that.
In November 1950, five years before Zhou made that policy declaration, Nehru had proclaimed India’s wholly contradictory approach. Asked in Parliament, by pre-arrangement, about the alignment of India’s border with Tibet, the Prime Minister replied that “the frontier from Bhutan eastwards has been clearly defined by the McMahon Line which was fixed by the Simla Convention of 1914”. Members pointed out that China’s official maps, ignoring the McMahon Line, showed India’s North-East Frontier Agency as part of China; Nehru replied that they had been doing that “for the last thirty years”, but brushed that cartographic contradiction aside as irrelevant. “Our maps show the McMahon Line as our boundary, and that is our boundary, [Chinese] map or no map. That fact remains and we stand by that boundary and we will not allow anybody to come across our boundary.”
Later events and investigation have shown that India’s “McMahon Line” border claim stands only on a “forward policy” which advanced British India’s NE frontier by about 70 miles in its final decade, an aggressive action given a fake legitimacy by a diplomatic forgery concocted in London by a senior official, Sir Olaf Caroe. It is likely that Nehru was apprised of that background by Caroe himself as soon as he became Prime Minister in 1947. The Chinese government learned of it only years later, when it gained access to the diplomatic records filed in the Potala in Lhasa; but that did not affect its basic policy, which was to accept all border alignments as they stood when the PRC came into existence, insisting only that those be formalised and refined as legal boundaries through the internationally accepted process of delimitation (agreement through negotiation) followed by joint demarcation on the ground. Thus, the Doklam confrontation is the sour fruit of New Delhi’s irrational insistence that India’s ancient heritage yields the modern state the right to set its borders, and those of its neighbours, unilaterally. So far, not one of Nehru’s innumerable successors has had the courage to repudiate or revise Nehru’s absolute refusal of China’s standing invitation to negotiate a border settlement. Beijing has been equally consistent in its policy, and has to show for it boundary treaties with 12 of its 14 contiguous neighbours, the exceptions being, of course, India and its satellite Bhutan.
The way I look at it, the Chinese intrusion in Doklam and subsequent standoff is part of a larger pattern. China is pursuing its territorial claims in an assertive and muscular fashion, including claims which are contested or sometimes imagined. The best example is the South China Sea where you have the “9-dash line”, which is contested by other countries, and which was rejected by an international tribunal last year. But the Chinese are nevertheless going ahead with changing facts on the ground, or on water in this case, by reclaiming artificial islands and creating military facilities. The others have actually adjusted to the changed realities. The Chinese have managed to create a new normal in South China Sea.
In their border areas with Bhutan as well, there has been a pattern of intrusion by Chinese patrols, by Chinese graziers, as also construction of tracks and roads in certain areas which Bhutan claims as its own. In Doklam as well, there have been intrusions for the last several years. But this time, China started constructing a motorable road from Doka La, very close to our post there, to the Royal Bhutanese Army camp at Zompelri. Now this was very materially changing the ground situation. Bhutan pointed out that this construction is in direct violation of agreements of 1988 and 1998, which require China to maintain the status quo.
For India as well, apart from the fact that the Chinese had intruded into Bhutanese territory and were trying to construct a road, it would have amounted to changing the trijunction point unilaterally, even though China has committed that the trijunction would be determined by discussions among the countries concerned, in this case, India, Bhutan and China. There is a written understanding, from 2012, to that effect.
Equally important is that if the Chinese military presence extends to Jampheri ridge, it would have very major security implications for us, especially in the context of the Siliguri Corridor and its vulnerability. I suspect — one can only speculate on motives, given the opacity of the Chinese system — they didn’t expect Bhutan to be able to resist the construction of the road. They thought the Bhutanese would remonstrate, they may protest but will acquiesce; they will have no alternative. Possibly they didn’t expect India to step in and prevent the Chinese construction party from going ahead.
This was very different from the pattern which has been witnessed in the South China Sea, where others have adjusted to changing ground realities, to the new normal. We didn’t follow the script, and this appears to have angered the Chinese quite a bit.
Of course, you also have to look at these developments in the larger context of relations between India and China, what is happening in China in the run-up to the 19th Party Congress, with nationalism emerging as a major political force, both in domestic polity and as a driver of external behaviour.
This is the first time an India-China standoff is taking place in a third country. Does it make it more difficult to de-escalate?
In the confrontation at Doklam, the protagonists are India and China, Bhutan is involved not as a prime actor but only because it has claims to territory that is in dispute between New Delhi and Beijing. It suits the Indian government to exaggerate this situation and pretend that Bhutan is an active and independent player on India’s side, but that pretence serves only to confuse. With Independence in 1947, India inherited the treaty right to guide Bhutan in the exercise of its external relations, minimal as those were then. With time, and Bhutan’s emergence as a member of the United Nations, that treaty lost its legal force; but the actual situation has not changed. Although the presence of a brigade group of the Indian Army in Bhutan is of course only a defensive measure against the China threat, in any matter of high concern to New Delhi, Bhutan does what it is told — and no matter can even equal the importance of Bhutan’s relations with its other neighbour, China. Since a PRC ambassador in Thimphu would be intolerable, Bhutan has not been allowed to open formal diplomatic relations with the PRC, and that years of border negotiations with China have never moved beyond stalemate can only reflect India’s inhibitory, undeclared control of Bhutan’s approach. The PRC’s diplomats have negotiated boundary settlements with a dozen state neighbours, some with animus to China, and none have complained of Beijing’s heavy-handedness: what other than New Delhi’s malign interference could explain the protracted failure of the China-Bhutan border negotiation?
Definitely. This military standoff is different from what we saw in 2014 in Demchok and Chumar, and in 2013 in Depsang, partly because the standoff is taking place in Bhutanese territory. The second big difference is that the Chinese reaction has been extremely strident, very heated language is being used. They have laid down the precondition that there can be no meaningful dialogue without India pulling out troops, and the Chinese official media is going ballistic. That is a new element.
It definitely makes it more difficult to de-escalate, but I can tell you that in 2014, we requested the Chinese side that status quo ante as on September 1, 2014 should be restored and they agreed to do that, and that became the basis for de-escalation. This time too, the way out will be the Chinese paying heed to the Bhutanese request that the status quo be restored as before June 16 when the Chinese road construction party turned up on the scene.
What are the Chinese interests and strategic aims in this area?
The basic Chinese interest in this area of its borders is the same as for all the other sectors: to have a defined, mutually agreed boundary line confirmed by treaty. Its years-long attempt to negotiate an agreed border line with Bhutan having been thwarted (presumably by Indian interdiction), Beijing is now expressing its indignation, with warning reminders of what happened in 1962. This may express a build-up of resentment about India’s sustained recent pinpricking gestures, for example, bringing its puppet-figure the Dalai Lama into Tawang — a critical sore point in the dispute in the “McMahon Line” area. Beijing has consistently emphasised that it has no interest in attempting to undo the British Empire’s illicit expansion of its final decade or so, with implied willingness to confirm a boundary on the current Line of Actual Control in India’s Northeast. Tawang is likely to prove to be a sticking point, however, since it was annexed not by the British but by India, in what the Chinese feel was a stab-in-the-back operation in 1951.
It is very difficult to fathom Chinese motivations with any certainty. One major source of Chinese anger is that we didn’t quite follow the script. We have thwarted their efforts to construct this motorable road and we are doing that on Bhutanese territory, which they didn’t anticipate.
How will the situation be resolved?
That India’s National Security Adviser Doval will be in Beijing next week is most fortunate, allowing both sides to hold emergency consultations at a high level while presenting them as merely pre-arranged talks.
The Chinese have confirmed that diplomatic channels are open, so both sides are in touch with each other. There is very seldom any communication breakdown — even under difficult circumstances. What needs to be done is, one, avoid any escalatory rhetoric. The Chinese need to tone down quite a bit. From the Indian side, we have deliberately avoided any tit-for-tat polemics. There has been one important statement from the Ministry of External Affairs and one by the External Affairs Minister in Parliament. The second thing is to avoid escalation of the situation on the ground. Notwithstanding some reports, I believe the situation there is relatively calm. That needs to be maintained. Third, of course, is to have a dialogue and find a way for reciprocal withdrawal. We can’t do it unilaterally, but if the Chinese pull back in response to the Bhutanese request, I am sure there will be no need for India to maintain its personnel in that area either. Fourth is the larger dispute. The Chinese narrative that the boundary between India and China in the Sikkim sector is settled, is disingenuous and without basis. What we have agreed is the basis of alignment in the Sikkim sector. We have agreed that there will be watershed boundary, we have never agreed on the trijunction point. I have myself discussed this issue with them on any number of occasions. Much work needs to be done to delineate the boundary in the Sikkim sector on maps, and then on the ground. This has to be done between India and China, and Bhutan will have to be involved when it comes to the trijunction point.
Could the standoff lead to armed conflict between India and China?
Most certainly, yes! But it must be assumed that at the highest levels of control in both countries there is a will to avoid such a catastrophe, reining in the martial itches at lower levels, military and civilian.
I am quite hopeful that situation will not arise because both are not interested in escalating it beyond a point. China is also by and large interested in maintaining peace and tranquillity on its borders. We have major differences in the alignment of the boundary and LAC in border areas, despite that we maintain peace and tranquillity. That becomes possible through efforts on both sides.
If the situation is prolonged, which is likely, then its management becomes very important. We must avoid a repeat of 1986-87. This was the Wangtung incident when the Chinese set up a military camp south of Thagla ridge, and we had to deploy forces on the ridge line. For more than a year, there was heightened tension. In fact, the last time the border between India and China became live to some extent was in 1986-87. The so-called close confrontation in Wangtung was resolved in August 1995, and I happened to be the negotiator with China.
Could Prime Minister Narendra Modi do something dramatic to resolve India’s differences with China?
When Nehru slammed and locked the door leading to border settlement, he left the key in the lock, so to speak. Any one of his successors could have turned the key and re-opened the door to settlement by taking up Beijing’s ever-open invitation to begin border negotiations — but to do so would have brought a landslide of popular resentment. So deeply has the toxic myth of “unprovoked Chinese aggression” bitten into mass consciousness in India, so convinced is the public that the desolate area of Aksai Chin is as much Indian territory as is Connaught Circus, that even Mr Modi would risk sinking his own popularity if he agreed to border negotiations. And there is, of course, strong pressure on him from Washington to do no such thing: Indian hostility towards China can be one of the strongest cards in the American hand and is to be nurtured by all means. So it would be an extraordinary act of political courage for Mr Modi to undertake such a policy reversal. There is a historical example of just such courage, and its benign consequences in the developing Sino-Russian alliance. (Mikhail) Gorbachev faced the same problem as Modi, mass public hostility to China, repudiation of any suggestion of border negotiations; but in his notable speech in Vladivostok in 1986 he signalled to Beijing that the Soviet Union was ready to drop its “no negotiation” position, and the Chinese immediately responded. The result would be the same if Mr Modi dared, with the great geopolitical prize of cordial Sino-Indian relations — not to mention a Nobel.
I don’t think so. We are doing the right thing by handling the issue in a sober, measured manner. We cannot withdraw unilaterally because we have very important stakes. We can withdraw only if China heeds Bhutan’s request and restores status quo ante. Patient and painstaking efforts will be called for on our part. This is not something that will happen through a high profile or dramatic move on either side. Quiet diplomacy and quiet talks are required, first to lower the temperature, then to de-escalate the ground situation, achieve termination of the standoff, and eventually the problem.